South Africa

DAYS OF ZONDO

Asbestos Chronicles: Witness claims ‘strong hand’ behind missing papers in case over Free State audit

Asbestos Chronicles: Witness claims ‘strong hand’ behind missing papers in case over Free State audit
Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

A businessman who dispatched inspectors to assess houses for asbestos in the Free State has claimed that critical statements on payments ‘grew feet’ and disappeared. Abel Manyike’s ORI Group was meant to get R21-million from another subcontractor Mastertrade 232 in connection with the multi-million rand audit. He is involved in an ongoing court case over outstanding payments.

A businessman, who was subcontracted to run the fieldwork in the irregular Free State asbestos audit of 2014-2015, alleges statements from the file of a current related court case have disappeared.

Abel Manyike is the director of ORI Group Pty Ltd. He was the subcontractor who commissioned fieldworkers to assess Free State houses for asbestos.

Manyike is party to a current court case, in which he alleges another subcontractor (higher up the food chain) owes him millions for services rendered.

He testified at the State Capture Inquiry on Friday. Manyike represented himself and was not accompanied by counsel. When matters related to the case arose, he cautioned legal team head and evidence leader advocate Paul Pretorius SC.

“This matter is still under litigation, nè […] so take it easy with the questions especially when it comes to my contract,” said Manyike. He then reported statements detailing payments, which form part of the evidence in the litigation were missing.

Manyike alleged a “deliberate attempt” to conceal information. He told Chairperson Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo he encountered members of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU). “They came to interview. They were looking for affidavits,” he said.

“I could see that they were looking for something they couldn’t find in that file. They went to the court to get the statements, the affidavits, and it appeared as if certain affidavits in that file grew feet so I don’t know what needs to be done,” said Manyike.

Pretorius and Zondo made note of Manyike’s report, and indicated they would follow up on the reportedly missing court records. Manyike suggested the missing statements were “bold” and included payment details. He claimed there was “a strong hand” messing with things.

Manyike’s ORI Group was subcontracted to conduct the door-to-door assessments of Free State properties. This constituted the “actual” work of the multi-million rand project insofar as the asbestos audit (and not removal) was concerned.

ORI Group was among subcontractors involved in the project. A joint venture between Edwin Sodi’s Blackhead Consulting and Igo Mpambeni’s Diamond Hill bagged the audit work in the Free State. The price tag was over R200-million. 

The amount was then subdivided down a tier of subcontractors. One of them, Sello Sydney Radebe’s business Mastertrade 232 subcontracted Manyike’s ORI Group to do the fieldwork. It involved two steps: one, identifying Free State areas likely to have asbestos by analysing aerial maps; and, two sending fieldworkers door-to-door.

The full figure for the project was over R200-million. As a subcontractor, Manyike personally anticipated R11-million for project management. For perspective: the field workers he hired received R6.50 per house they assessed. Pretorius asked Manyike how many “foot soldiers” Manyike employed and what qualifications they had to assess the presence of asbestos in tens of thousands of Free State homes. Manyike said he dispatched 184 field workers,  many of whom were matriculants. They apparently demonstrated the ability to read and write, also understanding during interviews.

“We could train 28 people [at a time]. Four hours would be enough to train them,” said Manyike on preparing the workers to conduct the assessments. After a mere four hours of training “we would follow them for the whole week and see how they are performing” on site. In other words: the actual on-the-ground work involved in the audit of over R200-million was conducted by field workers with some secondary education, who received only four hours of initial training and R6.50 per house.

Manyike indicated an “ineffective” field worker would take five minutes to assess a house while an “effective” field worker would take three minutes. This, he claimed, was sufficient time to assess the presence of the hazardous mineral (asbestos) even though field workers were not required to enter the properties or look beyond blatantly visible features, such as the roof and obvious cracks.

Per an agreement with Mastertrade, ORI Group was set to receive R21-million. R11-million (so, more than half of the amount) was a project management fee for Manyike. “I did not enjoy it. I am still not paid,” testified Manyike. The outstanding fee is among the matters in dispute in the litigation detailed above. 

According to Manyike, Mastertrade (set to receive R44-million) subcontracted ORI Group to do “all the work” (at R21-million) because ORI Group had expertise. Manyike’s company was previously involved in a similar audit in Soshanguve, Gauteng. He said Radebe of Mastertrade was paid for his “social facilitator” role. The title piqued Zondo’s interest, and he asked Manyike to expand.

“Around R15-million was supposed to be his profit?” asked Pretorius of Radebe. Manyike replied:  “I see him as a broker, as a middleman, that’s his function.”

According to Manyike, a “social facilitator” such as Radebe is someone who engages with ward councillors and politicians: “He takes care of the social issues, the politics. He was a social facilitator, taking care of the projects in terms of politics,” said Manyike.

An increasingly curious Zondo asked Manyike if, in his experience, “social facilitators” were commonplace when working on government projects. “It’s a trend I can see, when it comes to these mega-projects,” said Manyike. “When I say they are taking care of the projects, I am not talking about bribery or anything.”

Zondo replied: “Well, it sounds very strange to me. If there is a bridge or a road to be built the government officials should be the ones telling the public what is happening. […] Why should there be people who earn millions of rand for the social role when they are not doing the actual work?” Manyike replied: “That is a good question, Chair.” 

Manyike concluded his evidence shortly after 1pm. Blackhead CEO, Sodi, was the following witness scheduled to speak on the project. DM

See report from Thursday’s testimony to the Zondo commission here.

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